First Post! Activism in the wake of disaster: Can psychotherapy help?

Jelena-Watkins-911-campai-007So welcome, this is my first blog post on my new site! I have been putting blogging off for a while, but September seems the appropriate month to start ..

Thirteen years ago today, on Sunday 9 September 2001, I waved my brother Vladimir goodbye at Toronto Airport in Canada as he was travelling to New York to attend a conference. Two days later he vanished in the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre.  At the time of my brother’s tragic death I was in my fourth year of training to be a psychotherapist at the Institute of Psychosynthesis in London.

During my own healing process, thirteen years in the making, I have become an activist as well as a therapist and a group facilitator for others affected by terrorism and other disasters. My therapy training, and my own personal therapy, backed by support from other 9/11 relatives and mentors who lost their loved ones in disasters, were my vehicles to healing.  

Today, I want to reflect on my own experience and that of other people I have met on this path of active involvement in processes of social and political change following disaster trauma. This proactive response, where the bereaved relatives or survivors of disasters become change agents is a regular occurrence yet is an under promoted and less well known feature of disasters.  

Therapists can make an important contribution to the processes of social change following disasters within the context of their therapeutic work, by holding and supporting their clients as they grapple with personal problems on the path to social change.

Activism: potential and pitfalls

In her seminal book ‘Trauma and Recovery’, Judith Herman  explores ways in which people affected by trauma seek resolution of their traumatic experiences. She says: ‘Most survivors seek the resolution of their traumatic experience within the confines of their personal lives. But a significant minority, as a result of the trauma, feel called upon to engage in a wider world. These survivors recognise a political or religious dimension in their misfortune and discover that they can transform the meaning of their personal tragedy by making it the basis for social action.

There have been many occasions over the past thirteen years when I have observed myself and others battling with personal problems as we attempt to be agents of change. Such deep collective trauma such as terrorism inflicts a daily pain of loss which can, for some people, be a constant reminder that they are not just ‘victims’ of a tragic event but are also co-creators of a collective story and that they can make a difference in society. 

This path of service has many pitfalls. Some of the risks for those who seek to be agents of change include over-zealousness, righteousness, working out of guilt or shame,  and also the temptation to get caught in blame.

Certain specifics in social activism in the wake of terrorism exist largely because such tragedies are public, highly controversial and politically sensitive. They give those directly affected access to the media and government officials. In my role as a founder-member and trustee of September 11 UK Families Support Group, I have met a President (Bush), a Prime Minister (Blair), Royals (Prince Charles + Harry), a world famous boxer (Muhammad Ali) and many other dignitaries.

What do you do when faced with high level decision makers? There is a moral credibility that comes with the unusual position you can be placed in when you are directly affected by a high profile terrorist attack. It is a bizarre and almost surreal situation. There is an enormous degree of shock and pain, yet when individuals are propelled into the public eye they are saddled with a great sense of personal responsibility. For some, such exposure will feel extremely uncomfortable.


Falling New York 2001- painting by Sue Adams 2005 . All rights reserved.

Against this backdrop, the therapeutic work done with those who are experiencing personal difficulties while trying to become agents of social change and recover from their own loss needs to take place on several psychological levels. First, there will be a level of deep personal loss, which may re-activate historic losses and trauma. The ‘standard’ grief and trauma techniques will be appropriate for this level. 

Then there is another, ‘existential’ level, often activated by confrontation with our essential powerlessness. There is a certain loss of innocence linked to our previous ideas of a just and predictable world. Working on this level may take a long time and is best worked on with the use of myths, stories and poetry. 

And there is another level  where issues of purpose, meaning and values will come into sharp focus: what does this loss mean for my future, for my children, for this world? What responsibility does it carry? The therapy space can provide a safe place where such perspectives can be explored. 

My experience of activism 

After 9/11, the New York City area and the USA became the understandable focus of the outpouring of support. That said, people from nearly 90 other countries died in the attacks, creating a dispersed group of bereaved relatives worldwide. For those of us in the UK, and especially for my parents in Serbia, it was difficult to be included in the American circle of support and to access resources and information. In my case, I longed to meet others affected by 9/11. I also felt very strongly that our particular voice coming outside of the USA could make a contribution to the decisions about the future development of Ground Zero, and in how the story of the events was told.  

In the interim I tried to search for other UK relatives to replicate the community-based support that existed in New York. Tracking down other UK-based relatives was a Herculean task in as there was a limited understanding among officialdom (who held the contact list of all the families) that people affected by the same tragedy would want to meet others in the same situation. I finally found allies in a group called Disaster Action, an umbrella organisation formed by the bereaved and survivors of other disasters in the UK. It was through their efforts that all of the UK 9/11 relatives were brought together six months after the attacks. I was one of the initial four trustees of this new family association and remain in this position to this day.

For me, community building has been a great antidote for the destruction of human bonds created by terrorism. I wanted the international families to be included in the decisions about the physical rebuilding of the World Trade Centre site, about memorialising issues and about the distribution of resources. Having a group meant that we could collectively take some control over our issues and make decisions for ourselves, that would have otherwise been made for us. 

I have benefited from on-going therapy as a place for self-reflection, the place where I could try and shift perspective from a place of victimhood and defensiveness towards a more open stance, where respect for the humanity of others would not be lost in my grief, anger and rage. I have also had to work hard on accepting my own humanity and my own limitations in my activism, which feels like a powerful call to service which could have been all consuming.

Concluding thoughts on moving forward

I agree with the Puerto Rican psychosynthesis practitioner Raul Quinones Rosado who suggests that in activism, which comes from a place of consciousness, there needs to be a movement from reaction to response. Reaction is typically unconscious and automatic whereas a response is conscious and intended, involving a choice. Anger and indignation, which often fire activism, usually come with other expressions of emotional reactivity, such as defensiveness, arrogance and hostility. The ability to respond relies on self-awareness and on our will to tap into the more altruistic aspects of ourselves. It also requires a break from reactive emotional states, which is not a simple process. In Psychosynthesis we use the process of dis-identification as a way of stepping into the position of an observer. It is important to note that dis-identification is different to dissociation in that we are not cutting ourselves from our feelings and thoughts or repressing them, but are rather developing a degree of freedom from them whilst acknowledging their existence. 

I believe that those who are engaged in the processes of social and political change following traumatic experiences can, like me, benefit from therapeutic interventions on different levels. For this to happen, counsellors and therapists need to be mindful of the dynamic interplay and interdependence of the inner and outer world. When this happens, the therapy can help bridge the gap between the psychological insight and meaningful, conscious action.

I hope you've found this topic interesting. If so, I recommend attending my one day Workshop to be held in January on “Working therapeutically in the aftermath of disaster“.

To see all the details please go here.

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